The FX channel’s much-hyped series, “Tyrant,” displays some of the most racist anti-Arab images I have ever seen on American television. And I’ve spent 40-plus years documenting TV’s images of Arabs.
The show has a simplistic plot, pitting Arabs against Arabs. The opening frames focus on Barry (Bassam) al-Fayeed; after a 20-year absence he and his all-American family return to the mythical Arab nation, Abbudin. Bassem feels obligated to see his father, Khaled, who rules this violent nation, and to attend his nephew’s wedding. Immediately, ominous music underscores the action. Cut to Khaled’s other son, the bare-chested, stupid, ruthless, “insane” Jamal. He brutally rapes a woman in her home; her family sits passively, unable to prevent the abuse. Later, Jamal enters a ladies’ restroom, where he violates the intended wife of his brother, Ahmed.
Almost all of the Arab characters in “Tyrant” are barbaric types: They are backward. Or they are rapists. Or they are warmongers. Or they are rich and spoiled. The show even depicts an Arab child as murderer.
Repeated flashbacks show Khaled the dictator directing his men to kill scores of unarmed women and men. As the massacre ends, Khaled orders one of his sons to shoot dead a helpless man begging for mercy; when the boy refuses, his younger brother does the deed. Khaled tells the now grown-up Bassam: “After everything I have given [my] people, they are still not satisfied. They still want freedom. Freedom to do what? I give them order.” Executive producers Gideon Raff and Howard Gordon were responsible for Showtime’s “Homeland,” and they also worked together on Fox’s “24,” so I wasn’t entirely surprised.
But I am dismayed that so many TV reviewers have given the series a thumbs-up. The Hollywood Reporter wrote that “the plot is string and entertaining.” The Boston Herald called Tyrant “the most engrossing new show of the summer.” At least Time magazine panned it: “Tyrant fails badly … Arab characters sneer, suffer and read ridiculous dialogue.”
It’s not too late for FX to cancel this series. And, it is not too late for responsible sponsors — KFC, Subway, Audi, Chevrolet and others — to withdraw their ads.
Otherwise, I fear it will fuel anti-Arab sentiment, in the United States and worldwide.
In order for this or any other stereotype to evaporate, men and women of good will should speak out, protesting this series. I urge you to do so.
And I hope I will never have to see and write about another series like “Tyrant” again.
Jack G. Shaheen is the author of the acclaimed book “Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People.” This article was prepared for The Progressive Media Project and was distributed by the McClatchy-Tribune News Service.